About this Recording
8.579013 - Chamber Music - TURINA, J. / WEBERN, A. / MENDELSSOHN, Felix / SHOSTAKOVICH, D. (In the Moment: Short Pieces) (Arabella String Quartet)

In the Moment
Short Pieces for String Quartet


In the Moment is a collection of short pieces for string quartet from composers hailing from Austria, Germany, Russia, Denmark, Italy, and Czechoslovakia, encompassing both traditional single movement pieces and meditative reflections on such themes as love, life and death.

Joaquín Turina was one of the leading Spanish nationalist composers of the early twentieth century. His tone poem, La Oración del Torero (The Bullfighter’s Prayer), represents the sounds of a bullfighting fiesta intertwined with the meditations of its protagonist. The piece was composed in 1924 for a quartet of lutes, but later the composer published a version for string quartet. Turina himself described the work as follows: “One afternoon of bullfighting in the Madrid arena … I saw my work … Behind a small door, there was a chapel, filled with incense, where toreadors went right before facing death. It was then there appeared … this subjectively musical and expressive contrast between the noise of the arena, the public that awaited the fiesta, and the devotion of those who, in front of this poor altar, filled with touching poetry, prayed to God to protect their lives.”

Anton Webern wrote the single slow movement, known under its German title Langsamer Satz, as a 21-year old, still finding his way in life. Desperately in love, he was inspired to write this during a holiday with his cousin, Wilhelmine Mortl, in the spring of 1905. She would later become his beloved wife. Composed before Webern had abandoned tonality, the music is emotionally charged and deeply expressive. Biographer Hans Moldenhauer describes how “the music is pervaded by sweet poignancy: serene happiness rises to triumphant ecstasy in the coda”.

The Four Pieces for String Quartet Op. 81, which Mendelssohn composed at different times during the last years of his life, were published as a set in 1850 by the publisher Breitkopf and Härtel in response to a posthumous interest in his works. Following the death of his sister, Mendelssohn composed the String Quartet Op. 80 in 1847 with uncharacteristic grief and vehement force. The Tema con Variazoni in E Major Op. 81, No. 1 and a Scherzo in A minor Op. 81, No. 2 were composed subsequently that year, and while they provide an emotional foil to the turmoil of Op. 80, there are moments when Mendelssohn’s heartache shadows the prevailing optimism. The Andante’s theme, first three variations, and coda are marked by restraint and elegance, contrasted only by the agitated fourth variation. The Scherzo, marked Allegro leggiero, is yet another example of Mendelssohn’s mastery of this type of movement, traced back to the Scherzo of the Op. 20 String Octet.

Two Pieces for String Quartet by Dmitri Shostakovich were rediscovered in Moscow in the 1980s and predate Shostakovich’s first full quartet. The melody of the Elegy is taken from a mournful aria sung by the unhappy Katarina, heroine of his controversial opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk. The acerbic and sarcastic Polka is adapted from the ballet The Golden Age. Both of these staged works exhibited Shostakovich’s veiled satire of Soviet society.

In 1910 Carl Nielsen composed At the Bier of a Young Artist as a mournful eulogy for the funeral of painter Oluf Hartmann. It was first performed by the Gade String Quartet at Hartmann’s funeral, and later adapted by Nielsen for string orchestra for an Easter concert he conducted in Copenhagen in 1912. He conducted the piece on several other occasions during his lifetime, and it was also played at his own funeral in 1931.

Hugo Wolf is primarily known for his masterful Lieder and subsequent decay into madness at the end of his short life. He was a fierce critic of Brahms, a disciple of Wagner and the ‘new’ German school, and a late Viennese Romantic. Wolf composed the Italian Serenade—atypical because he wrote almost no chamber music and because of its cheerful and lighthearted character—over three days in 1887. Initially, he called it simply Serenade; the word Italian was added three years later, apparently in homage to a land of warmth and sunny spirits.

Giacomo Puccini composed his lament for string quartet, entitled Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums—the flower of death) in the course of one night in 1890 after the death of Amadeo of Savory, Duke of Aosta, in northern Italy. The two extended themes on which the piece is based both appear reworked in his opera Manon Lescaut. As with Wolf’s Italian Serenade, Crisantemi is a somewhat atypical work in Puccini’s oeuvre as he is primarily known as a composer of opera, not chamber music.

Antonin Dvořák’s Waltzes Op. 54, Nos. 1 and 4 were originally composed as a set of eight waltzes for solo piano in 1879-1880 and published in 1880. The work grew out of a commission from the National Society, for which Dvořák was asked to contribute orchestral dances for their jubilee ball. He had sketched only one before reconceiving a set of eight Waltzes for solo piano between December 1879 and January 1880. When his publisher suggested an arrangement for strings, Dvořák selected two (Nos. 1 and 4). They were performed in their string version in 1880 but only published in 1911.

Franz Schubert composed his Quartettsatz—the title was not his—in December 1820, an entrée to his last three great string quartets. Apparently, he had planned to write a standard four-movement quartet, but completed only the first movement and a 41-measure fragment of a possible second movement. At one time, this single-movement work was dismissed as being of inferior quality, but it is now regarded as an important part of Schubert’s oeuvre, displaying a surety and drama of musical language that is not heard in his earlier quartets. In the Quartettsatz, severity and sublimity are juxtaposed with vulnerability and beauty. A sense of instability, provoked by the opening tremulous figures and apprehensive accompaniments to secondary themes, permeates the work.

The Capriccio in E minor, Op. 81, No. 3 was composed in 1843 and begins with a beautiful barcarolle, sung by the first violin. This section is disrupted by a recitative, a reminder of Mendelssohn’s use of this operatic device in his first two String Quartets, Opp. 12 and 13. A rousing fugue follows, an homage to Johann Sebastian Bach, whose works had been forgotten until Mendelssohn heralded their revival with his staging of the St Matthew Passion in 1829. The fugue subject is constructed as two sets of rapid 16th notes followed by a rising scale figure. These two musical ideas, heard successively at first, begin to be heard together as the contrapuntal writing ploughs without ceasing to the end of the movement.

Sarita Kwok

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